The bit that made the late, great George Carlin famous was his notorious “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine, which was a wonderful romp through, well, some of the best profanity out there. But what fascinated Carlin was not only the shock value of saying dirty words, but the fact that the authorities had segregated such a small percentage of our language. “They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large,” Carlin would joke. In a language with 400,000 words, how do you pick just seven to focus on?
George Carlin popped into my head as I was re-reading the coverage from the just-wrapped American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting, which has become — for doctors, for the media and for investors — the single most important medical meeting of the year. More than 4,000 abstracts were presented this year. The word count of the the abstracts comes to about twice the length of War and Peace (and deal with subjects far more complex than Russian dynastic politics). in short, there was a lot of information presented at the meeting. Even trying to understand 1 percent of what went on at Chicago would be a crowning intellectual achievement.
But during the meeting, the national media — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the broadcast networks and the Associated Press — wrote on only seven studies, a tiny snippet of what was presented. These seven stories, in turn, were pulled from the small number of studies promoted by the ASCO communications department with press briefings. To paraphrase Carlin: those studies must have been really outrageous to be separated from a group that large.
I don’t hold the decision to focus on such a small set of stories against any of the reporters on the ground in Chicago. I’ve been in their position, and I have a great deal of sympathy for their dilemma. It’s hard to dispute that the stories they covered were indeed important, and there are huge barriers created by competitive pressures and the finite number of hours in a day. That combination guarantees that there will be plenty of unexplored corners at a meeting the size of ASCO.
At the same time, a small army of trade reporters also fanned out across the meeting, and — if the articles that I’ve seen so far are any indication — were able to capture much more of what was interesting, what was practice-changing and what was disappointing than their more constrained (if better-known) press room colleagues. This has huge implications for how oncologists view the results of ASCO 2010, too: time-crunched docs are likely to pull open their favorite trade pub, not the New York Times, in the days and weeks to come to figure out what they missed.
The communication implication is clear: while a huge amount of time goes into making sure that every national reporter is aware of every last story, their ability to track down most of those leads is understandably but fatally compromised. But at the same time, the trade press has never been more vibrant or more important to the readers they serve. Because — just as there are more than seven dirty words every American should be able to use, there are, far, far more than seven stories that oncologists need to know about at ASCO. And the folks best at telling those stories, now, are in the trade press.